24 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Peter Handke’s latest novella to be published in English translation is narrated by a chef who operates and lives in an inn in the Île-de-France region outside Paris, near the ruins of the Port-Royal-des-Champs convent. Experiencing a period of solitude due to lack of business (all his neighbors — his potential customers — have moved away), he occupies his time reading. Thus, he is an ideal audience for a visiting storyteller who suddenly and fancifully appears in his garden: a visitor from another century and out of the pages of literature — the legendary lover Don Juan.

Handke, in addition to being a brilliant, occasionally controversial playwright and essayist, has for four decades written numerous brief, brilliant, piercing novellas (and two longer works of fiction, including his masterpiece My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay). These works have carried forward the tradition of intensely psychological German-language modernism (Handke is Austrian) and at the same time taken it in new, breathtaking, highly self-conscious directions. A simple recital of some of his titles — The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; A Moment of True Feeling; and the collection of journal entries The Weight of the World — is enough to capture the dual atmosphere of mournful angst and tender beauty in which his entire oeuvre is steeped.

So, the entrance of the title character in Don Juan: His Own Version is, for Handke, uncharacteristically lighthearted, even farcical:

. . . Don Juan came hurtling head over heels onto my property. He had been preceded by a sort of spear, or lance, that whizzed through the air in an arc and dug itself into the earth right at my feet. The cat, which was lying next to that spot on the grass, blinked a few times, then went right back to sleep, and a sparrow — what other bird could have pulled this off? — landed on the still quivering shaft, which then continued to quiver. In actuality the lance was just a hazel branch, slightly pointed at the tip, such as you could cut for yourself anywhere in the forests around Port-Royal.

The novella’s subtitle, which translates literally as something closer to “As Told by Himself,” is misleading for a few reasons, most obviously that Don Juan isn’t actually the narrator. We do not hear Don Juan directly describe his exploits — not even in quoted dialogue — but instead are told everything secondhand, by the chef. Additionally, the novella is not a retelling of the famous Don Juan legend depicted in the well-known play by Molière or the libretto of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Instead, Don Juan’s narrative spans the previous week, a period marked by encounters with several women. We get fewer details of each encounter than of the one before, ostensibly because they are significant to Don Juan only in the ways that they differ from each other. Also, we might suspect, Handke feels that each encounter is basically the same as the others. All that seems to interest him is the archetype.

The first of the week’s encounters is with a young bride in a village near Tblisi, Georgia, and the last is one about which we receive no details whatsoever. The intermediate encounters take place in far-flung cities — Damascus, Ceuta (North Africa), Bergen (Norway), and an unnamed city in Holland — due to Don Juan’s supernatural ability to travel quickly from one part of the world to another, in the company of his servant, the driver who initially met him at the Tblisi airport.

In order to characterize these encounters, the word “seduction” is studiously avoided. This is because, according to Don Juan himself (via the chef), he “was no seducer.” The chef explains:

He had never seduced a woman. He had certainly run into some who had accused him of doing so. But these women had either been lying or no longer knew what they were thinking, and had actually intended to express something altogether different. And conversely, Don Juan had never been seduced by a woman. Perhaps now and then he had let one of these would-be seductresses have their way, or whatever it was, only to make it clear to her in the twinkling of an eye that there was no seduction involved and that he, the man, was neither the seducee nor the opposite. He had a kind of power. But his power was of a different sort.

Perhaps his power is linked to the fact that this “version” of Don Juan is propelled not by lust or the urge to conquest, but by a profound sadness:

Don Juan was orphaned, and not in any figurative sense. Years earlier he had lost the person closest to him, not his father or his mother, but his child, his only child, or at least so it seemed to me. So one could also become an orphan when one’s child died, and how. Or maybe his woman had died, the only one he loved?

. . . What drove him was nothing but his inconsolability and his sorrow. To transport his sorrow to the world and transmit it to the world. Don Juan lived off his sorrow as a source of strength. It was bigger than he was and transcended him. Armored in it, so to speak, and not merely so to speak, he knew that although he was not immortal he was invulnerable. Sorrow was something that made him impetuous, and, in an opposite and equal reaction (or rather action by action), completely permeable and open to whatever might happen, while at the same time invisible when necessary. His sorrow furnished provisions for his journey. It nourished him in every respect. As a result he had no major needs. Such needs did not even rear their heads. . . . His sorrowing, fundamental rather than episodic, was an activity.

Indeed, Handke’s Don Juan is hardly the romancer and swashbuckler of legend but more of a tempered and introspective figure, much like the protagonists in many of Handke’s works since Slow Homecoming (1984). These characters are personified as wanderers — sojourners often suffering from unspecified psychological trauma, whose psychic survival seems to depend on their capacity to apprehend every last detail of their physical surroundings. This is why so much of Handke’s fiction is both mentally claustrophobic and expansively celebratory of nature, why it can feel at the same time so suffocatingly pessimistic about humanity and yet unguardedly optimistic that the soul may nevertheless flourish in a world that contains so much splendor. Toward the end of the novella, the chef captures some of this natural beauty:

In the hill forests around Port-Royal the edible chestnuts had just come into bloom, and the cream-colored strings of blossoms hung down among the dark oaks like crowns of foam atop waves, seething on all sides in the area surrounding the ruins, and from the silent surf rose, at the very top, back on the Île-de-France plateau, the pale red roof of the former cloister stables of Port-Royal, a roof with a tile landscape more beautiful and strange and yet dreamily familiar, as part of a barely discovered planet, than anything I had seen before, and the swallows swooping above it into the last sunlight moved twice as fast, as if propelled by the light.

Don Juan: His Own Version is an intriguing and frequently thought-provoking exercise. Although not on par with Handke’s earlier work, it contains many examples of his acutely self-aware and at times exquisitely gorgeous prose. Even, as here, when displayed only occasionally to its best advantage, Handke’s voice is strong and nearly unparalleled in contemporary world literature.

24 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Peter Handke’s latest novella, Don Juan: His Own Version, which is translated from the German by Krishna Winston and published by FSG.

Dan Vitale—one of our new “contributing reviewers,” which is sponsored by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts—wrote this review. He’s a big Handke fan, and although this may not be Handke’s absolute best, it sounds pretty interesting:

Peter Handke’s latest novella to be published in English translation is narrated by a chef who operates and lives in an inn in the Île-de-France region outside Paris, near the ruins of the Port-Royal-des-Champs convent. Experiencing a period of solitude due to lack of business (all his neighbors — his potential customers — have moved away), he occupies his time reading. Thus, he is an ideal audience for a visiting storyteller who suddenly and fancifully appears in his garden: a visitor from another century and out of the pages of literature — the legendary lover Don Juan.

Handke, in addition to being a brilliant, occasionally controversial playwright and essayist, has for four decades written numerous brief, brilliant, piercing novellas (and two longer works of fiction, including his masterpiece My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay). These works have carried forward the tradition of intensely psychological German-language modernism (Handke is Austrian) and at the same time taken it in new, breathtaking, highly self-conscious directions. A simple recital of some of his titles — The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; A Moment of True Feeling; and the collection of journal entries The Weight of the World — is enough to capture the dual atmosphere of mournful angst and tender beauty in which his entire oeuvre is steeped.

So, the entrance of the title character in Don Juan: His Own Version is, for Handke, uncharacteristically lighthearted, even farcical.

Click here to read the full review.

17 December 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

The National Library of Austria has acquired the papers of Peter Handke for 500,000 euros.

21 August 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Michael Roloff responded to our post about the review of Peter Handke’s CROSSING THE SIERRA DE GREDOS in the comments, but I think it deserves to be posted to the front page:

It is time readers of the New York Times Book Review were made aware of Handke, the prose writer, having gone through something like half a dozen changes. Starting of as a supremely playful demonstrator of the quelling of anxiety in his first three novels, only the third, GOALIE [1969], exists in English [in my translation], his nausea, once including words [he now fondle them] is not like Sartre’s idea-driven kind, but has psychosomatic origins; is the nausea produced by what for him is “the ugly;” no matter that it hits the same nerve. And that his hyper-sensitivities are uniquely his

If Mr. Gordon were as exacting as he says Handke is, he might have noticed that Handke already shifted to a more open hearted mytho-poeic, but equally if not more exacting, position in the 1975 LEFT HANDED WOMAN, [whose personae resembles that of the woman subject of the current DEL GREDOS] the book just preceding A SLOW HOMECOMING, whose Alaska section must be one of the most articulated responses to nature in world literature for its selectivity in naming.

What entered Handke’s writing shortly after HOMECOMING, in THE LESSON OF ST. Victoire, was the pictorial Cezanne re-arrangement of reality {“Close your eyes and see the world arise anew”, the opening sentence of his 1984 Salzburg novel ACROSS, provides a hint.}

With THE REPETITION [1987, “retrieval”] a book fabulously praised in The Guardian, the promised re-write of both his first novel, DIE HORNISSEN [1966], and of SORROW BEYOND DREAMS [1972 – Gordon even manages to find a negative take on Handke’s emotionally most immediately accessible highly praised book], Handke’s search [“I want to be someone like somebody else was once” KASPAR, 1968; OBIE 1972] rearranged his roots in his Slovenian grandfather and uncles’ region; which provides a hint to the unnecessarily baffled Professor Gordon why Handke might prefer a continuous existence of the Yugoslav Federation over its decimation into small consumer entities; his defense of the Serbs and Milosevic against the more customary “one devil” theory of history and journalism.

With the three narratives in THREE ESSAYS [especially ON THE JUKE-BOX, 1989], culminating in the six-sided weaving self-portrait of himself – as the once nauseated ex-cultural attaché Keuschnig [of 1974 A MOMENT OF TRUE FEELING], as writer, painter-filmmaker, priest, stone mason, super-finicky misanthropic restaurateur, and reader, in the 1994 magnum opus ONE YEAR IN THE NO-MAN’S BAY, Handke demonstrated for stretches – he is the greatest of exhibitionists – the capabilities of narrative as pure writing music image, as he did already in the 1986 ABSENCE, a narrative that a reader experiences like film.

Subsequent to NO-MAN’S-BAY he then demonstrated that you could zoom like a camera, in the 1996 ONE DARK NIGHT I LEFT MY SILENT HOUSE, into the mind of an apothecary, in the improbably named, Salzburg suburb Taxham, and make that fellow’s dream syntax absorb the readers’ projections, a feat worthy of the Joyce of FINNEGAN FUNAGAIN; and in his 2005 DON JUAN, the fugueing novella that followed the 2003 GREDOS he showed that you could write both forward and backward in time while standing in one place. – I know it is all a little much, the fellow just turned 65 and has published 60 books, and sometimes I wish I’d never set eyes on him, but he can’t help it, he must write to stay healthy; his symptom is his salvation. And it is that of real readers.

It matters little that the so other-opinion-oriented Mr. Brown’s search for “opinions” yields so little of note; or that Handke is the whipping boy of miserable reviewers chosen by overly busy editors. Gordon has searched poorly. REPETITION and NO-MAN’S BAY are regarded, rightly I think, as two of the great novels of the past hundred years, e.g. William Gass’s estimate of them. Since Gordon cites the Book Forum review, I would like to point out that as a professor of literature he might be aware of the classical tradition of Goethe, Stifter, Flaubert, Hermann Lenz and Bove in whose steps Handke, the last great walker on the earth, exerts himself as someone who is so infinitely of his medium’s contemporaneous possibilities; and to sensitive responses in the

1] LA TIMES — Thomas McGonigle
2] Washington Post — Guy Vanderhaegen
3] San Franciso Chronicle — Christopher Byrd

as well as to sites and blogs I and others run on Handke accessible via: http://www.handke.scriptmania.com

These not only contain a wealth of material, but there Handke, his own severest critic, also is critiqued on his own terms; and flinches at every lash of the whip!

Gordon’s reading of DEL GREDOS shows me that he is the wrong reader, responder for this book, written in large part to memorialize, salvage a landscape. He bristles at being shook up.

———

MICHAEL ROLOFF 714-660-4445 Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS: http://www.roloff.freeservers.com/about.html

MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS!” {J. Joyce} “Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde” [von Alvensleben]

20 August 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

The New York Times Sunday Book Review had a review of the latest of Handke’s novels, Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, to be translated into English. It’s not so positive:

Handke’s didactic refusal to let us make of his book what we will, his sedulous effort to keep us dizzy and confused, is, more than anything else, a way of infantalizing his readers. By the time we’re done, we’re feeling so put upon, so talked at, that it’s difficult to respond with anything but adolescent sullenness.

15 June 07 | E.J. Van Lanen |

The June/July/August issue of the excellent Bookforum is now available online, and features a review of Peter Handke’s Crossing the Sierra de Gredos.

....
Fear: A Novel of World War I
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .

Read More >

Little Grey Lies
Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .

Read More >

Autobiography of a Corpse
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Reviewed by Simon Collinson

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .

Read More >

A Musical Hell
A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .

Read More >

Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >

The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

Read More >